My youngest daughter turns 21 in April.
As I've tried to figure out what sort of gift was appropriate for this milestone, I realized I haven't really given much thought to why it was a milestone.
My daughter has been acting more and more like an adult for a number of years now. I am more than a bit proud of her growing maturity and responsibility. I know she can make it on her own if she really has to.
I don't exactly consider my job as a parent completed, but at least I feel like, for all my failings and weaknesses, she has managed to learn most of what she needs to know to have a chance at a healthy, happy and productive life.
Her young adulthood, then, is not going to spring full blown upon her the day she turns 21 (actually, at times it has seemed to sneak up on both of us, often surprising us in the process). What was it, then, that makes this celebration of her birth so significant?
I have finally settled on three major changes in my daughter's life that are going to take place on her 21st birthday.
The first has to do with authority. Not mine, but hers. She now has, in the eyes of the world, the authority to make all major decisions in her life.
I've never really thought about that -- all major decisions. She no longer has to come to either of her parents for permission to do anything. Buy a car? Sign a lease? Take a trip? Get married?
Sure, she's been making some of these decisions already, but now she will truly be in charge of everything.
Second, she will be responsible for the consequences of whatever results from the decisions she makes. Her parents will be given neither credit nor blame for her choices (OK, we might take some credit if you offered it; and, being parents, we will certainly blame ourselves for anything that went wrong; but bottom line, despite any desire on our part to continue to assume responsibility for our daughter's choices, it will be hers).
Finally, our daughter will be held totally accountable for paying the price for any injustice or harm that occurred as the result of her choices. She no longer has "parents" who are ultimately held by society and the law to be liable for making right any wrongs she might unintentionally or intentionally commit.
All apologies, losses, penalties, restitutions, restrictions, or incarcerations (that certainly was a frightening list) will now be hers to face. And though we might try to bail her out now and then, we really can't shield her from this accountability no matter how much we might want to.
At this point in my birthday ruminations, I am starting to wonder what there is to celebrate. And I have found myself lifting up the prayer of all parents of such emerging adults: "Oh God, could I just have a few more years?"
Well, I can't. And its not like I'd do much better if I could. I'd just find different mistakes to make.
Having come to the end of my fatherly fretting, I now find myself left with a simple salutation to offer my child: "Happy birthday, daughter! It really is a wonderful world, and you really do have so much to offer it. I'm very proud to be your father."